Clicks for charity: The implications of MrBeast’s model of philanthropy

Heidi Pullig
Picture by Pexels

MrBeast (aka Jimmy Donaldson), the world’s most subscribed YouTuber, is currently ranked as the highest-earning on the platform, topping the 2022 Forbes YouTuber list with earnings of roughly $54 million USD in 2021.

He has built much of his audience, popularity, and financial success on a clever combination of his homespun charm and the giving away of huge sums of money to his friends, subscribers, and strangers through contests and charitable giveaways.

In recent years, MrBeast (also known as YouTube’s biggest philanthropist) has begun to focus more of his videos and extreme giveaways on philanthropic causes and those in need, in the process creating what many see as a new funding model of philanthropy i.e. one which relies not on traditional models of charitable giving or donations from audiences but through raising charitable revenue merely through the act of audiences watching and being entertained.

However, Dr Vincent Miller and Dr Eddy Hogg from Kent’s School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, have found that MrBeast’s revenue-generating philanthropic videos come with their own set of implications.

Dr Miller, who has co-authored the paper ‘If you press this, I’ll pay’: MrBeast, YouTube, and the mobilisation of the audience commodity in the name of charity’ [‘Convergence: The International Journal of Research into New Media Technologies’, March 2023] with Dr Hogg, explained: ‘MrBeast’s viewers are knowingly generating charitable income through their own self-exploitation as a valuable audience commodity which creates revenue for others – the ‘warm glow’ effect, and this form of cause-related marketing practiced by MrBeast, in theory, has benefits for all parties. But, the criticisms of such approaches, however, are numerous.

‘Many of these concerns stem from the ways in which such practices link the production of wealth to the practice of charity, binding the two together as ‘the solution’ to societal ills. It is argued that such an approach can stifle philanthropy’s transformative potential.

‘By binding the production of wealth to the practice of charity, MrBeast is closing the space for debates around the most effective ways to address societal problems. Food banks, equipment giveaways and handouts to homeless people only address the negative outcomes, not their root causes, many of which are likely, and ironically, to have resulted from the large-scale industrial changes and employment shifts emerging from increasing technologically enabled automation and globalisation endemic to contemporary informational capitalism.’

Dr Hogg added: ‘We see MrBeast’s mobilisation of YouTube’s audience value as opening up interesting questions about the complicated nature of social media practices and advertising revenue generation, as well as an important new approach to charitable fundraising and philanthropic giving enabled by the advertising revenue sharing models of social media.

‘Additionally, it raises the issue of selective causes. The need for causes supported to make good, algorithm-friendly content means that only a particular type of deserving beneficiary is promoted. Those who the audience may perceive as less deserving – drug users, sex workers, ex-offenders – are left out, excluded from the philanthropic story so as not to interfere with the ‘warm glow’ of good deeds for deserving people, and an algorithmic logic which may not deem such content suitable or advertiser-friendly.

‘Finally, we do not know whether the funds and goods being distributed by MrBeast might have been donated in some other ways were it not for Beast Philanthropy. Thus, rather than generating new philanthropy, MrBeast’s Philanthropy may just be moving existing donations around – a zero-sum game.’